9 Mary and Rufus
February 10, 1988
Mary stirred the coals in the wood box of the Home Comfort cook stove. The barrel next to the cook stove was low on wood, and she had to lean far over to find some of the precious locust wood to make the fire hot enough to bake biscuits. She glanced toward her husband — Rufus was sitting at the kitchen table staring blankly at the newspaper she had set in front of him. He had always made sure the wood barrel was filled. Not that she couldn’t do it; the wood was just around the corner of the house, and often she had filled the barrel herself during the day when he had been at work. It was just one more thing that was disappearing from him.
She wouldn’t think about that now. Jackie was coming out to visit. She idly thought maybe he would fill the wood barrel for her when he came in, and then chuckled to herself at the picture of him getting wood for her in his city shoes and lawyer clothes. She filled the wood box of the stove with the locust, and looked out the kitchen windows at the snow. Thank heaven for John and Elizabeth. John kept their driveway plowed and the boys shoveled her walkway to the woodshed. Elizabeth stopped or phoned every time she was going to town to ask about groceries and supplies.
“Rufe, remember Jackie is coming out? He’ll be here anytime now.”
“Wha’d you say, Mary?”
“Remember, Jackie? He’s coming to visit this morning.”
“Oh, Jackie. Haven’t seen him for awhile…”
“Yes. It’s been a long time. Remember he’s a lawyer now — works in town…”
“A lawyer! When’d that happen?”
She sighed, and then caught a glimpse of a small black car on the road, slowing down to turn in the drive. “Here he is. Remember, it’s Jackie.”
“Yes, you told me that,” he said, disgruntled. He reached for his coffee. “Mary, is there more coffee? This is cold.”
Sometimes she just had to laugh. “Well, Rufus, that’s because you just let it set there and get cold. Yes, there’s more, love.” She took his untouched cup and poured it back in the pot, swished the pot around, and poured him a new cup. She put the warmed coffee in front of him and kissed the top of his head. He had done for her for most of their fifty-three years together — now it was her turn to do for him.
Jack knocked on the door, and she motioned him inside. The door opened with a blast of cold air and swirling snow. “The wind never quits on this hill, does it?” he grinned and rushed over to hug her. “Ah, this kitchen smells just like I remember it — coffee, wood smoke, and bacon.”
“And biscuits,” she said. “It’s been so long since you’ve been here, you have to rely on your old memories…” she scolded.
“Please don’t lecture me,” Jack said as he took off his jacket and hung it up in the mudroom. “And Rufus…you’re looking great. I brought you some store-bought doughnuts.”
Rufus stood up smiling and offered his hand. Jack brushed his hand away and gently hugged his frail frame.
“Hello Jackie,” he said. “Long time, no see.” He looked at the white bag that Jack had shoved in his hand. “Now what’s this again?”
Jack laughed. “Rufus, you’re so used to Mary’s homemade cooking, you don’t even remember store-bought doughnuts!”
“Sit down, Jackie,” Mary ordered. “The biscuits will be ready in a few minutes. Here’s some coffee.”
Jack went over to look in the wood barrel. “You need wood, Mary. Let me go get you some.”
She smiled. “We’re fine for breakfast. You can fill it before you leave.”
He put his arm around her shoulders. “Mary,” he said, “you need to think about getting a more modern stove. Jeez, I hate to say that, I love this stove, but you’re not going to be able to cut and split wood for this old thing forever.” He lowered his voice, “Can Rufe still help you with it?”
She shook her head. “John and the boys help. And look at this…” She walked over to the mudroom and rummaged in one of the wooden boxes that lined the outside wall. They were filled with the sundries of country life: butternut squash, onions, egg cartons, boots… and she proudly held up a small electric chain saw.
“Mary, put that thing down, “Rufus said from his chair. “You know I can help you with the firewood.”
Mary rolled her eyes at Jackie.
He said, “I’m guessing Rufus didn’t buy that for you.”
“John brought it over this fall and showed me how to use it. It’s a little noisy for Rufus.” She put the saw back in its box, and went back to cooking.
Jack sat down at the table across from Rufus. “Hey, I see your old truck parked out front. Is it still running good?”
“My truck? I haven’t driven it in awhile. All the snow, you know?” he answered.
Mary had her back to them at the stove. “Rufe,” she said. “Remember you and John gave Eli a driving lesson on the dirt road?”
“Eh?” Rufus looked momentarily confused, then smiled. “He took that bend too fast, and we ended up in the field. I made him get right back in and try it again.”
Jack looked up. “He did that too? How old is Eli now?”
Mary never turned around from the stove. “No, he’s remembering the driving lessons with you. Eli’s twelve. He did fine around that bend. Course, he’s been driving a tractor for two years…”
Jack looked from Rufus to Mary. She could feel him looking at her and turned. She smiled sadly, “You are the big thing in our memories, you know? And that’s what he has right now. But even they are fading fast. I’m glad for them, though. He reminds me of things that I hadn’t thought about for years.” She turned back to the stove and opened the oven door to turn the pan of biscuits. “Get in the icebox and find the apple butter and the jelly, would you please?” She reached up into the warming oven and pulled out a platter of bacon and scrambled eggs. “I had lots of eggs to use up; I hope this suits…”
“Are you kidding? I haven’t had…”
Mary interrupted him. “What about that accident? Why did the newspaper quote that Alex from Penndot? Do you know him? What do you think about this whole thing?”
“Any other questions?” he asked mildly. He put the apple butter and the raspberry jam on the table in front of Rufus. Mary was heaping eggs and bacon on warm plates. She brought them to the table and went back for the biscuits. “Rufus, we’re going to have breakfast with Jackie.”
“I already ate breakfast, Mary,” Rufus answered.
“Eating again won’t hurt you, you’re such a Skinny Minnie these days.” She put the biscuits in a fresh towel and brought them to the table.
“I’ll take six of those, please,” Jack grinned.
“You can come eat here anytime, you know. But I won’t say any more. I know, you’re busy with lawyering and town life. And girls…” she smiled at him. “Any one in particular, yet?”
“No, Mary,” he said emphatically. “None of them can cook like you.”
“Hush,” she said.
Jack ate hungrily, spreading Mary’s apple butter thickly on the warm biscuits. Mary reached over and put a doughnut on Rufus’ plate. He had been pushing his eggs around with a fork, but his eyes lit up at the sugary pastry. “Say, where’d we get these?” he asked. “I haven’t had a good doughnut in a long time.”
“Jackie brought them for you, Rufe,” Mary reminded him. He tucked into the doughnut with gusto, and Mary put a second one on his plate. She looked up at Jackie who had been quietly watching.
Her sad eyes and half-smile said everything to him. She hadn’t changed much, just a few more lines around her eyes and a few more pounds around her apron. Her dark hair was still done in a coil at the back, and there was very little gray. Her smile was still beautiful.
“Now about all those questions,” he started. “I can’t answer them all. I read that editorial five times, trying to read between the lines, and what I think is that Bill Clancey got hold of a good story and he’s trying to rile things up. It may work; it may not; it may backfire big time on him; or maybe nothing will come of it. Hard to say. As far as Alex Goddard? I do know him. He was a sometime drinking buddy for awhile. I like him. He just got married so I haven’t seen him lately. We even dated the same girl for awhile. Well, not at the same time. At least, I don’t think so….”
“Is he a good man?” Mary asked.
“I like him. Don’t know him too well, but he always seemed like a straight talker, no bull-kind-of-guy.”
“I remember last time… Would it be the same thing? The same road plan? Or would they do something new? What should we do?”
“Pray, Mary. Do you still pray?”
“I have been Jackie. I’ve been praying solidly since I read that article this morning.” Mary put down her fork and looked at Jack. “Jackie, if something happens… with this road. You’ll help us, won’t you? We can’t pay you much, but…”
“Now you hush,” Jack ordered her. “In the first place, if something happens, I will absolutely do everything I can for you. For everyone out here. But I don’t know if I’m the right person. Eminent Domain law — land rights — it’s just tricky. There’s rules about it, you know, and they’re very complicated. But I will say, I’m going back to my office and I’m going to start studying. And if I figure I can’t do the best for you, I’ll find out who will be the best. And we might even be getting ahead of ourselves. We don’t even know if anything is going to happen. Sometimes this kind of stuff sits on bureaucrats’ desks for years. And politicians have to approve funds — it really could be years…”
“I just didn’t like the way those reporters interviewed Alex about the twelve-year-plan.” Mary stood up to clear the plates. “Rufe, you ate all three of those doughnuts!”
Rufe grinned. He had sugar all around his mouth. “Best damn doughnuts I’ve ever had. Where’d we get doughnuts anyway?”
Mary laughed and turned to Jack. “Now you know what your job is every time you come to visit.”
Jack smiled too. “I’ll try to visit more often. Though, Rufe, too many of those doughnuts aren’t good for you.”
“Oh, you brought the doughnuts, didn’t you, Jackie?” Rufe said in a moment of clarity. “Well thank you. They were great.” Jack got up and hugged the old man goodbye.
Mary was packing biscuits in a tupperware container. She put in a jar of apple butter and some homemade pickles, too. “Now you have to bring the container back to me,” she said, her dark eyes dancing.
Jack was putting on his coat. “You just sit down for a minute, Mary. I’m going to load up your wood barrel. I think I remember how.”
“Now, you don’t have on the right shoes,” Mary protested.
“Look here, Rufe’s boots will fit right over my shoes,” he argued, and he had the boots on and was out the door before she could say more.
He made three trips and had the wood barrel overflowing by the time she had washed the dishes. “Walk out to the car with me, Mary,” he called. She came into the mudroom with a large grocery bag filled with her homemade goodies.
She handed him the bag. “Don’t argue,” she said. “I hardly have anyone to give my food away to anymore.”
He hugged her. “I wasn’t going to argue. Thank you. It will all get eaten — every crumb.”
“I’ll be right back, Rufe,” Mary called.
Outside, the sun was brilliant in a bright sky and the trees dripped heavily making giant pock marks in the snow. “You be careful driving in that little car. When everything gets slushy, its dangerous.”
“This is a Honda, Mary. It’s a great snow car. How do you get to town?”
“Elizabeth takes me sometimes. But more and more I stay home with Rufe. She always calls before she goes and asks me if I need groceries or supplies. You should go over to see them, Jackie. They’d love to see you. And you wouldn’t recognize the kids. They are growing so fast.”
For the first time since he’d been there, Jack checked his watch. “Can’t today, Mary. But next time I come visit you, I’ll definitely go over and say hey. Sounds like they are a big help to my favorite people.”
“They’re great neighbors,” she said. “Almost as good as you and your dad were.” She hugged him so he wouldn’t see her teary eyes.
She watched him back out the driveway and waved until the car was out of sight. Of course, she could always blame her watering eyes on the bright sun.